Former Bihar chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi, president of the Hindustani Awam Morcha, is part of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance in Bihar that is determined to oust Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and his ally Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal in the state assembly polls in October-November.
The 70-year-old soft-spoken Mahadalit leader, who has established himself as a political force in the last one and half years after he became the third Dalit chief minister after Bhola Paswan Shastri and Ram Sundar Das, started his political career with the Congress in the late 1970s and later joined the Janata Dal, followed by the RJD and the Janata Dal-United.
When Nitish Kumar stepped down as CM following his party’s poor showing in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, it was Manjhi he turned to to stand in for him. It is another matter that within months Nitish Kumar developed differences with his handpicked successor, and eased himself back into the chief ministership. Manjhi subsequently warmed up to the BJP.
Clad in his usual cotton dhoti-kurta with black bundi (half coat), Manjhi took time off his election schedule to talk to M I Khan in Patna.
How confident you are about facing the formidable combination of Lalu Prasad Yadav-Nitish Kumar in the Bihar assembly elections? Do you think the duo still enjoys a strong social support base among the Dalits, the Backwards and the Muslims?
I am 200 per cent confident. People want to get rid of Lalu and Nitish. They are fed up of them and their respective rules of 15 and 10 years. During their (combined) 25 years of rule in the state, people faced rampant corruption, poor law and order and domination of dynastic rule.
In view of this, people have made up mind to vote against them this time.
We (the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance) will win 180 of the 243 assembly seats and my party will win all the 20 seats it is contesting.
If the NDA comes to power our only agenda is to develop Bihar.
You are talking about 25 years of their 'misrule'; you were minister during Lalu’s wife Rabri Devi’s and Nitish Kumar’s tenures as chief ministers. You were chief minister from May 2014-February 2015. The BJP was also a part of the Nitish government from 2005 until June 2013.
Are you not taking all this into consideration?
It is not easy to tell you all of this in such a short duration.
But didn't Nitish handpick you as chief minister; following which, you praised him and thanked him?
Yes. I thanked him. I could have never imagined that I would become chief minister as I hail from the poorest of the poor community -- the Mushahars (rat-eaters).
My becoming the chief minister proved that a man from this deprived community could work like any other person from a developed community. It forced people to think that Dalits like me are not weak.
I took advantage of the opportunity provided by him (Nitish) to work for the marginalised and the downtrodden. But when I refused to work like a rubber stamp, I was removed.
In fact, I did many things that even Nitish could not do. It is all in the records.
Lalu and Nitish are saying in their campaigns that the BJP is a communal party and they will not allow it to come to power in Bihar…
It is fraudulent and wrong for them to call the BJP communal. I want to remind them that when Lalu was in power in the early '90s, he ran the government with the help of the BJP.
(Sarcastically) Was the BJP not a communal party then?
Nitish has had a 17-year alliance with the BJP. He became a Union minister and twice became the chief minister of Bihar -- all thanks to the BJP.
Was the BJP not communal then?
How do you see Prime Minister Narendra Modi, since he is the star campaigner of the NDA?
Modi is a neutral person who is committed to development. He is a man who talks, lives and sleeps development. He is the second prime minister after Atal Bihari Vajpayee who has been doing everything irrespective of party politics and helping all states to develop.
Are you comfortable with the BJP and its Hinduvta politics, since you began your political career with the Congress and later shifted to the socialist brand of politics (the JD and the JD-U)?
I am totally comfortable. For me, the BJP is not a communal party. There is no need to say that one party is communal and the other is secular. Similarly, some people have been branded communal.
It is wrong to say this.
Before Modi, the Vajpayee-led NDA government was in power. Nothing happened then. Why we should fear that anything will happen now?
If the Modi government touches Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, I will oppose it. Similarly, if the Modi government will try to implement the common civil code, it would threaten the sovereignty of the country.
Do you agree with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat’s recent statement about a review of the reservation policy?
I support the RSS chief’s stand to review the reservation policy. I think there is nothing wrong in reviewing the reservation policy, it will only help us. In fact, reservation should be based on a socio-educational model.
Do you also support the RSS’s idea to turn India into a Hindu Rashtra?
Being Hindu is an identity, not a symbol of a religion. I cannot discuss the RSS’s Hindu Rashtra policy, as tje Bihar polls are near.
Image: Former Bihar Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi. Photograph: M I Khan.